Victorian Era Child Labor

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Soot covered chimney sweeps. Children in coal dust from work in the mines. Others bent and broken from hours spent over the machines of textile mills. These are a few common sights in Victorian England. This lesson examines Child Labor, its causes and effects.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Spurred on by technological advances, such as the spinning jenny and the power loom, which allowed for the mass production of cheap textiles. Meanwhile advancements in metallurgy made the development of the steam engine practical and also allowed the creation of better and stronger tools and machines. By the early decades of the 19th century, factories and mills were springing up throughout Great Britain. Unskilled workers from the countryside, as well as immigrants, flocked to the factories for work. Many of these workers were children who would labor in dirty and dangerous jobs for little pay. The three most common employers of children during this era were the textile mills, and coal mines, and many others found employment as chimney sweeps in London and other major cities.

Those Dark Satanic Mills

In 1808, the poet William Blake published the poem ''And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time'' which included the now famous lines, ''And was Jerusalem builded here/ amongst these dark satanic mills.'' Blake and many others criticized the textile mills during the Industrial Revolution at least partially because of the treatment of children in these mills. During this era, poor children were expected to work to help support their families. As early as 1841, over 107,000 children British children worked in cotton and textile mills and were the vast majority of employees in this industry. The factories and mills were more than happy to hire children because, due to their small size, they were able to work in the tight confines of machines that adults could not reach. Another benefit for the factory owners was that children could be paid far less than adults for their same amount of work. The average work week for a child labor was Monday through Saturday, often from 6 in the morning until 8 at night. Because there were no laws to protect children at the time, they had no rights and were often given some of the most dangerous and dirty jobs, such as cleaning machines while they were still operating. They were often also beaten by bosses for the smallest violation of the rules, such as falling asleep or arriving to work late. Eventually, many in Britain came to see that some regulations were needed to help protect children in the mills. The first efforts were the Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819, which outlawed children under the age of nine from working in factories and also limited them to only a twelve hour work day. Later efforts would eventually limit women and children to only working ten hours a day.

Chimney Sweeps

Perhaps one of the most iconic occupations for children during the 19th Century in England was as chimney sweeps. During this era, most houses and apartments were still heated by coal and wood. As the smoke of these fuels would travel up the chimneys it would create ash and soot which would stick to the chimney walls. Over time a chimney could even plug up and cause fires, or lead smoke and gasses to be unable to escape. To deal with this, armies of children would hire their services out as chimney sweeps. Their small size would allow them to climb up inside the chimney and scrub the ash and soot off. Many of these children were orphans who were, in effect, conscripted in slavery and forced to do the work. Many bosses would purposefully underfeed the children so that they would remain skinny enough to fit inside the chimneys. This profession was incredibly dangerous; in addition to falling or getting stuck, both of which could kill a young child, they were also constantly breathing in the soot and ash which caused lifelong lung problems for many former sweeps. Because of these horrid conditions, many efforts were made to try to protect chimney sweeps by the government. For instance, in 1840 a law was passed that made it illegal for anyone below the age of 21 to climb into a chimney in order to clean it. Unfortunately, the law was seldom enforced. In 1875 a new law was enacted which required every chimney sweep to be registered with the police and monitored after a 12 year old boy fell to his death as while sweeping the chimney of Fulbourn Hospital.

Young Chimney Sweeps in New York City
Young Chimney Sweeps in New York City

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